Around the World in 80 Books: China

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Welcome to the next installment in my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge! It’s exactly what it sounds like: I’m trying to read 80 books from 80 different countries/cultures around the world, and to add a frugal spin, I’m trying to do it all for under $20.

Here’s my running tally so far:
$0- Library books: Russia, Norway, Sweden, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Spain, Nigeria, New Zealand
$2.75- Late fees on the book for Italy
$0- Free eBooks: Scotland, England, Portugal, Cyprus, Albania, Montenegro, Mongolia
$0- Gift: Turkey, Pakistan, Autism in the USA
$0- Won in a Giveaway: Jerusalem
$1.99- eBook: Basque Country, Japan
$0- Paid review on an interesting read: Financial Inclusion at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Grand Total: $6.73

Today’s book came from the library, so the total stays the same! Score!

I also wanted to let you guys know about a new challenge I’m doing called Adulting Reads. There is a theme for each month, so I’ll be choosing some books from diverse authors across the world that match the theme each month when possible.

This month’s theme was politics or current events. While today’s pick is a few years old, it’s more current than I’ve ever been on China and definitely covers a lot of political background I was otherwise unfamiliar with.

If you want to join us in February, you can join and find more info here. The next theme is memoirs.


Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

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Like I said, I had a very limited knowledge of modern Chinese history. I had read and loved
Now the Hell Will Start
years ago, but that really taught me more about why the US was in China during WWII and what we did–particularly within the context of African-American regiments.

So this was different. In it, Chang follows the life of two migrant workers over the course of a few years in the mid to late 2000’s. She also covers her own family’s history as essential refugees and emigrants during and after the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, which happened from 1966-1976.

Both were extremely interesting, but my biggest complaint about this book is that it should have been two. She tried to tie the lives of these girls together with her own family history, but it was a bit of a stretch. It led to her jumping around between the narratives which was jarring and confusing at times.

But when it comes down to it, I would have read both books had they been independently written.

The Transient Lives of Migrant Workers in China

The migrant worker sections of the book took place largely in Dongguan, which is an immense manufacturing city. Its rise, and the rise of similar though mostly smaller cities that facilitate the same ends, has completely upended traditional Chinese values.

While eldest sons are traditionally the empowered ones in a family, they are also the inheritors. So they by and large stay home on family farms. Daughters, on the other hand, have a lot more freedom to go to the cities and pursue their own independence.

Because there wasn’t a whole lot of rural enforcement for the one child policy, there are younger sons go out to the cities, too.

From Chang’s own words:

The continuing link to a family farm has stabilized China in an age of mass migration. Its cities have not spawned the shantytown slums of so much of the developing world, because the migrant who fails in the city can always return home and find someone there.

It’s interesting because through the young women that Chang follows, you can see how both their individual lives and the identity of the nation are changing so quickly that values and world views are very much in flux.

I picked out some quotes to show what I mean:

If other people don’t understand you yet, your modesty would be seen not as a sign of virtue but of incompetence.

That one Chang pulled from Square and Round which is a hugely popular Chinese self-help book. It’s pertinent because it shows how old values, such as modesty, are being rethought and in some cases placed on the other side of the line of morality.

As the migrant workers explore their own values, they shared some sentiments I wasn’t in love with (not that my approval is a measure of validity), and others that spoke to me deeply.

From a young woman named Min:

A person cannot grow up through happiness. Happiness makes a person shallow. It is only through suffering that we grow up, transform, and come to a better understanding of life!

While that sucks, it’s also true. And a very healthy way to look at change and adversity.

Another came from a woman named Chunming, who was perpetually looking to improve herself and her life. She saw huge amounts of wealth in her life, interspersed between periods of struggle.

Before she ended up pursuing a business of her own, she went back and forth on the idea. This argument against the idea struck me as poignant:

My friends, the ones who are all bosses of their own trading companies, are trying to talk me into starting my own company. They make twenty or thirty thousand yuan a month. But if I did that, my life would be just about making money. I want to keep raising the quality of my life. I want to find new kinds of happiness.

When I jumped to self-employment, that was something I struggled with myself. I quickly learned it’s all about setting healthy boundaries. Well, that and hella good budgeting.

After I had set this book down, I picked up a picture book with my kids. We flipped to the last page, and in some type of serendipity saw that the book had been made in, of all places, Dongguan. Though perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising given the scale of manufacturing in the city. We probably use multiple things made there everyday.

factory girls china

The Cultural Revolution

Then there was the portion with her family history, which was super interesting. Her grandfather was arguably one of the first casualties of the war between old and new China. The rest of her family, including her father, went to Taiwan just before things started getting super crazy with the Cultural Revolution, and he and his siblings emigrated from there to American in order to get their education and start a new life.

The Cultural Revolution was something I wasn’t overly familiar with. Essentially, as power shifted, there was a rebellion against all things old, including a time-honored reverence for education. A period of anti-intellectualism was born, and, along with it, a dark period of Chinese history. So dark, in fact, that many Chinese people won’t talk about it today. It’s easier to let it go than to obsess over the pain.

Some of Chang’s uncles and other relatives stayed behind and were sent to work camps because they were not only highly educated, but also academics. Despite staying out of allegiance to communism, they were stripped of their dignity and a decent portion of their lives.

Was it a frustrating read? Yes, but only because of the narrative’s construction. If you could get over the fact that transitions were anything but smooth, the content itself was well worth picking up the book.

I’ll end with one of the more thought-provoking old, Chinese values that blew my Western mind:

In traditional Chinese society, maintaining harmony with others was the key to living in the world. The moral compass was not necessarily right or wrong; it was your relationship with the people around you.

On Deck

The Dog Who Wouldn't BeA Brief History of Seven Killings

I know I said I was reading my India book next, but that one’s on my back burner for now. I’m currently reading The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be (my Canada selection) with my kiddo at bed time. I know it’s building their vocabulary because it’s building mine!

The other one, my Jamaican pick, is decidedly a book I would never read with my children ever. Expertly written, but…we’ll get into it next time. After I’ve finished reading. 🙂


Have a recommendation for what I should read next? Leave it in the comments! Here’s what’s already in my queue:

Canada: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat recommeded by Messy Money
Afghanistan: The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg recommended by Savvy Working Gal
Philippines: May Day Eve and Other Stories by Nick Joaquin recommended by Guiltless Reader
Iceland: Scarcity in Excess by Arna Mathiesen & Thomas Forget
Sudan: The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih recommended by Kate Wilson
Ethiopia: The God Who Begat a Jakal by Nega Mezlekia recommended by Based On a True Story
French Antilles: Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Conde recommended by Based on A True Story
Suriname: The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia McLeod recommended by Based On A True Story
Costa Rica: The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica
France: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr recommended by Our Next Life
Germany: In the Garden of Beasts or Devil in the White City by Erik Larson recommended by Emi from AIP Around the World
Haiti: All Souls Rising by Madison Smartt Bell recommended by Tre from House of Tre
Jamaica: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James recommended by Jana of Jana Says
South Africa: Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton recommended by Emily from The John & Jane Doe Guide to Money & Investing
Australia: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson recommended by Aaron from When Life Gives You Lemons, Add Vodka
Romania: Anything by Andre Codrescu recommended by Abigail from I Pick Up Pennies
Mali: Monique and the Mango Rains recommended by Rebecca from Stapler Confessions
Croatia: Girl at War by Sara Novi recommened by Erin from TexErin-In-Sydneyland

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13 thoughts on “Around the World in 80 Books: China

  1. Done by Forty

    That quote about your life only being about money is resonating with me.

    “My friends, the ones who are all bosses of their own trading companies, are trying to talk me into starting my own company. They make twenty or thirty thousand yuan a month. But if I did that, my life would be just about making money. I want to keep raising the quality of my life. I want to find new kinds of happiness.”

    It’s a downside of FIRE that hardly any of us write about: the fact that our community reduces so much to the extra income we can earn from an activity, or how much we save, and how it all leads back to a preoccupation with money.

    Maybe I need to pick up that book.

    1. Femme

      YES. Debt is one way to be a slave to money, but there are certainly others. At some point we have to draw the line between financial freedom and obsession.

      To be honest, the entire book is not about that. It’s still well worth the read in my opinion—just don’t want you to pick it up expecting one thing and only getting a small serving. 🙂

  2. Jana @ Jana Says

    This is such a you book to read. And while it sounds fascinating, I can’t say that I’ll put it on my list. But I should put A Brief History of Seven Killings since I recommended it and have not read it yet.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      All’s fair! I’ve certainly read a few throughout the course of this challenge that I myself wouldn’t read again. And lol. I didn’t know you hadn’t read it. It’s extremely rated R–intense intense intense.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      For sure. As long as you don’t rack up late fees–which has been the most expensive part of this challenge so far!

  3. Tyler

    This is an awesome idea I don’t know how I missed that you were doing this. I need to read more informational books. I read a lot of business, and finance books, and my “entertainment” books, mostly science fiction. But, I’ve never read anything that was about another country like this it sounds super interesting. Keep up the hard work.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Well, I’ve been working on this for a couple of years and 2016 wasn’t my strongest. So it might have flown under the radar. 🙂 My husband is really into sci-fi for his entertainment reads, too. Maybe sci-fi from around the world would be more appropriate for you? Not all of my reads have been non-ficition—just trying to hit diverse authors. Thanks for your encouraging words!

  4. RAnn

    Interesting reading challange. I love to read, have a book blog but always fail at challenges. Of course I was the bookworm who hated required reading.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Haha I hear you. That’s why I’m so into this one–I can take as long as I darn well please and I get to make up the specific rules myself. The only overarching point is to expose myself to books written by diverse authors or set in other areas of the world.

  5. Gary @ Super Saving Tips

    What a great challenge! Too many of us only see the world through our own little lens, but I’m sure you’ve gained some new perspectives reading about all these different cultures. And it’s great that you’re using your library and free books to get a lot of it done.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Absolutely! I was super excited when I saw this challenge on Savvy Working Gal, and knew I had to join in. I’ve learned an incredible amount and have enjoyed most of the reads. But I knew to write about it I’d have to do it on the cheap to make it relevant haha. Plus, it’s saving me a TON of money for sure to do it this way.

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